Peggy Butler’s military experience covers a lot of ground including helping build a hospital in the desert during the Gulf War. A nurse with 21 years of military experience, the Danville woman first worked in a hospital near San Francisco where snipers fired on wounded Vietnam soldiers being moved from one hospital building to another.
Butler, who retired after spending 25 years teaching nursing students at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, recently shared some perspective on her Navy and Navy Reserves career that spanned 1967 to 1999.
Butler witnessed the public’s poor treatment of soldiers during the Vietnam Era.
“A lot of anger was funneled toward military personnel rather than the politicians who made the policy,” Butler says as she spoke to Heritage Hospice staff about her military experience as part of the staff’s We Honor Veterans training.
We Honor Veterans is a national hospice program that encourages staff to learn more about veterans to provide better end-of-life care.
An “Air Force brat,” Butler joined the service at age 21 as a nod of respect to her dad, who was an Air Force veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The Navy was her preference. One reason was she feared the remote locations assigned to those serving in her father’s chosen branch.
“Not the Air Force because I had visited my father in Grand Forks, N.D., and I decided if there was any remote chance that I would ever be sent to Grand Forks, N.D., that was not going to be it.”
She was sent to Oakland Naval Hospital, across the bay from San Francisco. Before WWII, the grounds had been a country club with a golf course. Despite its rolling green hills and beautiful trappings, the work within was grim. It was the West Coast center for amputees, psychiatry, neurosurgery and cardiology.
Many arrived after the TET offensive, which was when the Viet Cong broke a two-day cease fire agreement during a holiday and began an intense wave of attacks.
“We would receive hundreds of patients a day from Vietnam for various reasons.”
Butler says every day she spent in neurosurgery intensive care was a tough learning curve in the world of nursing.
“It was like going to grad school. Because they had gunshot wounds to the head. There was lots of severe spinal cord trauma, brain tumors. Lots and lots of surgical procedures.”
The public sentiment in that area was very anti-war. Butler recalls snipers firing at amputee patients as they crossed the compound.
“There would be people situated on the hill across the freeway with high-powered rifles that would fire on the amputees as they tried to make their way through the hospital compound. That’s how bad the feeling was at least in the Bay Area during that time.”
Patients proved challenging as they suffered mentally, too. Patients frequently acted out in inappropriate ways, Butler says.
“In many ways they seemed to still be (in Vietnam).”
She remembered some humorous elements, too. A patient in a full-body cast once was caught throwing water balloons out the window.
“It was like having injured Cub Scouts because they were very child-like in their behaviors.”
During Butler’s time there, the old rambling hospital closed and moved its patients to a 10-story modern facility.
Butler was at a very impressionable age and says she does suffer PTSD.